Supported Agriculture, Agriculture Supported Communities
In Maine the number of farms has declined from over 4,000 in 1950
to only 600 in 19961, according to
the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. Similarly,
the Northeast is losing approximately 3,300 farms every year.2
Each farm that goes out of business rips another hole in our tattered
rural social fabric, costing from three to five additional jobs.
Mainers currently spend less than 10% of their food dollars on
Maine-produced food, under $25 per capita per year for vegetables,
including potatoes.3 Figures elsewhere
in New England are similar. As the percentage of food dollars staying
in localities has declined over the last few generations, so has
the share of each food dollar going to farmers. Distributors, wholesalers
and retailers have been claiming ever more, leaving a smaller and
smaller portion for the growers.
These statistics lead to an inescapable conclusion: Our communities
are not supporting our farmers, so our farmers are unable to support
our communities. Most of our food travels many hundreds of miles
to reach us. Enormous energy is expended to transport it, yet it
loses much of its freshness and nutritional value.4
Our entire food distribution system, dependent as it is on heavy
usage of agricultural chemicals, preservatives and fossil fuels,
disrupts the ecological balance of the planet.
A growing alternative agricultural movement is responding by seeking
to bring markets back home. Food co-ops and farmers markets sprouted
in the ‘70s, growing rapidly for a time until bumping against
inherent structural limitations in their appeal. Now comes Community
Supported Agriculture. In only ten years, the CSA movement has spread
to 600 farms in the United States.
Community Supported Agriculture is a cooperative of growers and
eaters who have chosen to work together for their mutual benefit.
In exchange for receiving a share of produce each week for an agreed
upon time period, shareholders pay the growers an agreed upon yearly
fee, usually in advance of the season. At the minimum, CSA guarantees
the growers meaningful employment with decent remuneration before
they stick a single seed in soil and guarantees consumers a weekly
supply of fresh healthful food.
For several reasons, CSA could be the mechanism which finally
begins to reverse the direction of American agriculture. First,
CSA food is fresh food, as fresh as it gets. It comes right off
the farm into shareholders’ bags. In many cases, shareholders
even help pick it. Moreover, almost all CSA food is grown without
herbicides, pesticides or chemical fertilizers. The same social
forces at work in creating CSA have also worked to make farming
Second, CSA elevates the status of farming. Farmers receive a
guaranteed income, liberating them at least to some extent from
the often demeaning experience of being the smallest potatoes in
a vast impersonal unforgiving marketing system. CSA can enable them
to concentrate more of their energies on growing the food and less
on hustling it. Whether the initial impetus comes from growers or
consumers, many CSA farms form a core group of the most interested
shareholders to meet with the growers to administer the CSA. Typically
the core group, while expecting the farmer to grow the food, takes
responsibility for its distribution, and core group members accord
the farmer the same respect they customarily confer on other professionals
who possess special expertise.
Third, many CSA farms require shareholders to work in the fields
or at the distribution tables, thus bringing consumers to the rural
setting where the food is grown. Not only does this give eaters
an understanding of where food comes from (not the supermarket),
but also it gives them a hands-on appreciation of the skills needed
to produce the food, reversing several generations of increasing
specialization and compartmentalization that has more and more alienated
us from each other. Though one might think that shareholders required
to do work would leave in droves, some well-run CSAs have experienced
just the reverse. When Elizabeth Henderson proposed a non-working
share for a higher fee, her core group at Rose Valley Farm voted
it down.5 Her shareholders wanted more
than just fresh produce, they wanted the cameraderie and community
that comes with working together on a common project. Similarly,
the vigorous food coop movement of the 1970s in Maine was as much
about community-building as it was about cheap food.
Fourth, CSA shareholders share the risk. If tomatoes are late
and eggplant are sparse, as they were on many farms during this
perverse growing season, the shares will be adjusted accordingly.
If a bumper crop of lettuce refuses to bolt, as also happened this
year, shareholders will share in the unexpected largesse. Sharing
the risk builds mutual identification, affinities and therefore,
Fifth, CSA is a flexible mechanism which can take a wide range
of forms. At Jan Goranson’s farmstead, subscribers can pick
out anything they like for a discount off the retail price. They
need neither work, nor take any other part in the farm operation.
Goranson’s operation, except for requiring share payments
by consumers up front, mimics the typical non-CSA roadside stand.
At the other extreme are farms which require work from all subscribers
and which assign the available produce in identical shares to all
members. Many CSAs fall somewhere in between, offering non-working
shares for a higher price and/or allowing shareholders partial or
complete choice in determining what goes in their weekly allotment.
Such flexibility should enable CSA to adapt into whatever forms
it needs to keep spreading. Those preferring convenience and autonomy
in choosing foodstuffs will gravitate to the Goranson model. Those
thirsting for community involvement will be attracted to Henderson’s
Sixth, although few farms can efficiently produce all items shareholders
desire, cooperation among CSA farms and among CSA and non-CSA farms
is growing. CSAs are adopting the Rochdale principle of cooperation
among cooperatives, making deals with each other to increase the
diversity in their shareholders’ bags. As CSAs interconnect
with each other and with other farms nearby, they strengthen rural
At Fedco we feel a special affinity for the growing CSA movement,
sharing many similarities in our goals and some of our structures.
Like CSAs, we are a cooperative of workers and consumers who’ve
chosen to work together for a mutually beneficial aim. Our workers
benefit by finding meaningful employment. Our consumers benefit
by getting interesting varieties of good seed at reasonable prices.
Some choose the convenience of ordering individually much as they
would with any other seed company. Others enjoy the full social
benefits of cooperation and community, coordinating large ordering
groups, visiting us at our warehouses, talking with us and sometimes
working with us. Our coop, like CSA, is sufficiently flexible to
permit a wide range of consumer involvement.
Because we are so excited by CSA’s potential, we sponsored
a CSA workshop at the 1996 Common Ground Fair, flying in experts
Robyn VanEn from Indian Line Farm in Massachusetts and Elizabeth
Henderson from Rose Valley Farm in New York to lead the presentations.
We wanted to strengthen the movement in Maine by exposing more growers
and potential consumers to CSA. Since Jill Agnew pioneered the first
CSA in Maine, about thirteen other farms have followed. Working
with a SARE grant in Winter, 1995-96, Steve Gilman compiled a directory
of 170 CSAs in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and New England
which is available in 1996 CSA Farm Network). Not surprisingly,
107 of them are already Fedco customers. By creating a community
of eaters CSAs have also built Fedco ordering groups and can reap
the economic benefits.
In the seed world we look for hybrids which merge the best traits
of both parents. CSA appears to be such a hybrid, combining ideas
from the organic movement with values from the cooperative movement.
Given good nourishment and attentive care, it will thrive to bring
forth great social bounty. We will be helping.
1 Maine Times, V. 28, #37, June 27, 1996,
“Food from away” by Naomi Schalit, p.2.
2 Maine Times, V. 28, #37, June 27, 1996, p.2.
3 Maine Times, V. 28, #37, June 27, 1996, p.5.
4 Maine Times, V. 28, #37, June 27, 1996, p.5.
5 1996 CSA Farm Network, ed. by Steve Gilman, “Nurturing a
Core Group” by Elizabeth Henderson, p. 28.